A wily Champions League vet with a few tricks up his sleeve. A Minnesota native who went from starter to benchwarmer and back more times than one should have to. A player once dangled as trade bait who’s only USMNT cap came during his time in the second division. While the powers that be may insist that there is no NASL/MLS split in the team, these three are all that remain for the most nostalgic of Loons fans to cheer for. While there will one day come a time when not a single one of the original Loons are left, it is becoming increasingly painful with each further departure.
Last season, Minnesota United joined MLS with eight players joining the fledgling MLS franchise from the NASL roster. The opening day thumping a year and a half ago in Portland boasted only one NASL holdover in the Starting XI, fullback Justin Davis. Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra got their debuts that night too, with Ramirez netting the Loons’ first ever MLS goal. Also on the bench that night were several other former teammates from the good old days: Ibson, Brent Kallman, and Kevin Venegas. It wouldn’t be long before they got their MLS debuts as well. The eight players that made the jump sometimes struggled to get on the field in the first season and a few were quickly dropped and scattered to the wind.
Justin Davis went on to make 9 appearances last year in MLS, 5 of those being starts. He even captained the team once before sitting the entire second half of the season and being released by the team in the winter and picked up by Nashville SC. Should he last for more than a few years, he may get a second shot at MLS as Nashville will be joining MLS in 2020.
Another player that recently joined Davis in Nashville is Minnesota raised Ismaila Jome. Jome joined the Loons for the last half of their final season in NASL and then rejoined the MLS iteration midway through their debut season. He was mainly used as a utility man, but that wasn’t enough for the Loons to keep him around and he, like Davis, was picked up by Nashville.
Joining Davis and Jome in USL is Kevin Venegas. Venegas only racked up seven MLS appearances last year, five of them coming consecutively in a midseason stretch between the Loons stabilizing their defense and his hamstring injury. Of the 23 games he was healthy for, he was only on the gameday squad for ten matches. In the winter he was deemed not good enough for the top flight and landed at Indy Eleven.
Bernardo Anor, an MLS veteran of Columbus Crew and Sporting KC who was loaned to the NASL version of the Loons before his permanent transfer to the MLS side, never even got into the matchday squad. This is despite him having scored 12 goals in 84 MLS appearances. Not exactly a rookie, but still not good enough. He now plays for Caracas FC in his native Venezuela.
This leaves us with four players that played together on the NASL that lasted into the second season. After the trade from Monday night that sent Christian Ramirez to LAFC, there are only three.
Kallman started the debut season on the bench, but quickly found his way into the lineup and was a mainstay in the first half of the season before Michael Boxall arrived and his playing time dwindled. The Boxy/Calvo partnership was again preferred early in this season, but he was restored to the lineup when Calvo went to Russia and stayed there when the Loons switched to the back three. Despite captaining the team five times and playing in roughly 60% of MNUFC games over the past two years and rarely putting a foot wrong, Kallman still seems like the most likely centerback to be dropped to the bench. When Boxy came in, Kallman went out. In the first 13 games of the year, he got into three games for a total of 95 minutes. Despite solid and respectable performances, he’s had to fight for every minute he’s gotten.
Of the three, formerly four players that are left from the NASL days, only Ibson has been able to operate without impunity. Kallman has been in and out of the lineup depending on who else is around, Ibarra was used as a utility man off the bench or talked about in the same breath as the words “trade” and “allocation money” until he made himself undroppable this season. Striker was the one position that looked like it was locked down coming into MLS, but the Loons spent two top draft picks on strikers and a DP spot to shore up the number 9 position.
The four players that survived the offseason culling of the old NASL crew had shown themselves to be of MLS quality. There wasn’t a question of being good enough, now the only question is if they’re important enough to keep.
None of them are what you would call franchise players, even if they are hometown favorites. The trade of Christian Ramirez hammers home the point made by Manny Lagos the other day: There is no NASL Loons and MLS Loons. There is no soft spot for the fan favorites or the players that built the core of the team for years. There is no more time for being just good enough.
If it really is going to be all business, then the results need to show up on the field. Dumping capable players than fans love to cheer for only works if you replace that with something else fans love to cheer for: winning.